The valley floor catches the cascade from Lower Gocta, a two-tiered waterfall that begins in Cocachimba.
The valley floor catches the cascade from Lower Gocta, a two-tiered waterfall that begins in Cocachimba.
For The Washington Post
Correction to This Article
An Oct. 15 Travel article incorrectly described the Gocta waterfall in Peru as being 25 stories tall. At more than 2,500 feet, Gocta would be about 250 stories tall.
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After the Falls

We got a deep briefing on Chachapoyas history from Lerche, the anthropologist, that night at his brother-in-law's hotel, a charming colonial-era hacienda near the river. Numbering nearly half a million at their peak, the Chachapoyas were taller and paler than the Incas who eventually overwhelmed them. At least one scholar argues they may have been the lost tribe of Israel. Like the mystical, mysterious Anasazi of the southwestern United States, the Chachapoyas left a vast and scattered archaeological record in dry mountain cliffs. Most of them are yet undiscovered.

"Personally, I know of more than 350 sites, " Lerche said.

One of the best, Lerche said, was a massive necropolis discovered by looters, a grave robbery that ended up founding a remarkable local museum. In 1996, in a high alcove above the nearby Lake of the Condors, a group of workers found a huge cache of ceramics, textiles and almost 220 perfectly preserved human mummies dating back more than 500 years. The looters pilfered some, but infighting among them quickly led someone to spill the beans to the authorities. What was left is now housed in the Leymebamba Museum at the far end of the valley, a little Smithsonian in the heart of nowhere.

It took another three-hour lurch-fest to reach the tiny village of Leymebamba. But all the shaking was forgotten when we entered the stylish, modern museum. The textiles and pots alone are worth the trip. But it's the glassed-in chamber of mummies that will grab you by the retinas. The scores of desiccated men, women and children are clearly visible, tucked in tight fetal curls and draped in moody white gauze. Hollow eyes peek between bony fingers, giving them expressions both terrible and bashful. Marcelita Hidalgo, a white-coated technician, took a withered little man from the shelf and showed us tiny threads tied around his fingers and how his ankle tendons, like all the mummies', were cut to make him fold more compactly.

We were the only (living) people there. I was growing to adore this place.

Up Close and Phenomenal

Until now, the tourist itinerary around Chachapoyas has been limited to a circuit of ancient relics and ruins: Kuelap, the mummies of Leymebamba, the intact tombs known as Karajia we would visit on our final day. But now, there's a major waterfall to fit in.

"We've never seen this much interest in the area," said our expat English guide, Rob Dover, who started his Chachapoyas-based Vilaya Tours eight years ago. "It's all Gocta, Gocta, Gocta now."

Like any outing here, the approach to Gocta begins with a bumpy few hours in the van, this time climbing a steep valley up to the village of San Pablo. Gocta is a two-tiered waterfall; it plummets over the ridge and hits a shelf on the cliff, where it pools up for a few hundred feet before falling over the edge to the valley floor. If you want an up-close look at both sections, you have to make two trips.

The gateway to Upper Gocta is San Pablo, an isolated, attractive hamlet of mud-brick buildings and wide Andean views. Tourists have become more common, but not normal enough to prevent a parade of dogs and marveling kids from falling in behind us as we walked up the only street.

At the end of town, a drunk blocked the trail, haranguing our local guide about the increased foot traffic past his house. A local loco, the guide whispered to us. We moved on, settling into a blissful morning of hiking in a dry, wide vale. After a couple of hours, we passed the limit of usual village activity and a raw forest gloom closed over our heads. The guide pointed us down a newly slashed side trail, a steep scramble down to a small viewpoint. We huffed out of the trees and there, still two miles away at a distant end of the valley, was the world's third-highest waterfall.

This is the moment that I usually stare for a minute, say "Oooh," bounce my knees Chevy Chase-style a couple of times and then turn in search of the hotel bar. But this . . . this was a really, really big waterfall. Even after four days of hard travel, hundreds of miles of chiropractic roads and impossible emotional windup, I was simply awed.

Gocta, at this time of year, is a misty wraith dancing with gravity, a huge, twisting white column of froth chasing itself down the cliff face. It made an immense noise. Even two miles away we could feel its strange clackety vibe, like an infinite train over a bad track. In the rainy season it must shake the world.

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